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Is It a Cold or Allergies? Here’s How to Know

March 28, 2023

An adult woma,n suffering from allergfies, holds her forehead.

We might be grateful for warmer weather as winter thaws into spring. However, the common cold is still very prevalent even as seasonal allergies are just beginning to show up. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which of these conditions you have.

Gabrielle Samuels, DO, a family medicine physician with Atlantic Health System, shares the most common allergy and cold symptoms, how you can tell them apart, and how to treat them to keep the sniffles at bay come springtime.

What causes colds and allergies?

Colds are caused by viruses and are usually transmitted from person to person. Allergies are caused when a person’s immune system responds to triggers in the environment (allergens) like plants, animals or chemicals.

There is a lot of overlap between cold season and allergy season, which adds to the confusion. Common cold viruses tend to be more common in winter months when people are gathering indoors. Allergy seasons tend to be at their height when the seasons are changing — like in the spring and fall.

“Springtime is big for tree pollen, especially in the Mid-Atlantic,” says Dr. Samuels. “In the last few years when we’ve had more mild winters, spring allergies are starting earlier and our providers are seeing symptoms as early as February.”

Cold symptoms vs. allergy symptoms

Separating colds and allergies can be tricky because there are some overlapping symptoms. For example, both colds and allergies can cause:

  • Cough
  • Fatigue
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sore throat

“Both allergies and colds can cause inflammatory responses in the nasal passages and upper airways,” says Dr. Samuels. “Inflammation in these areas can lead to similar symptoms even though the causes might be very different.”

There are, however, some symptoms that are unique to each condition. With allergies, you may see watery, itchy eyes and an itchy throat. Generally, says Dr. Samuels, itchiness can be a sign of allergies.

With colds, you may also have a fever, chills, body aches and pains.

You may be able to distinguish between colds and allergies based on how long each lasts. While colds typically last less than two weeks while the virus runs its course, allergies tend to last longer.

An infographic that details the differences between cold and allergies.

Managing colds and allergies

You can protect yourself from catching colds by practicing good handwashing, social distancing and wearing a mask.

For allergies, people with a history of allergies are likely to get them again. “If you know you have a history of seasonal allergies, it’s important to start your treatment right at the start of allergy season,” says Dr. Samuels.

Keeping windows closed during allergy season can minimize allergens present in the home. Additionally, you can shower at night to wash allergens off of you before bedtime. You can also use nasal saline to help relieve symptoms. For more severe cases, your doctor may recommend additional nasal sprays or oral medications.

Before starting any treatment, it’s important to discuss appropriate options with your doctor.

Be Proactive About Your Health

To stay safe and healthy, it's good to have a primary care provider who knows and understands your health history and wellness goals.

  • Cold, Flu & Viruses